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The automatic watch might be a kind of mechanical watch, but they are not the manual-winding types that first made the market.

Even though quartz watches are stealing the market share due to their ease of use and maintenance, automatic watch movements are saving the day for its mechanical category.

So, that said, how do automatic watches work differently from manual watches?

The automatic movement transfers kinetic energy from the wearer's hand movements into a rotor oscillating freely within the watch. This rotor transfers the kinetic energy into the mainspring of the engine, where the energy is stored and used to power the watch. The mainspring automatically winds the watch, hence the self-winding name that automatic watches get.

There are a series of moving parts and interesting bits that you might not have known about these timepieces too. We've explored them all below.


How is an automatic watch different from a manual-winding watch?

Both the automatic and manual watches belong to the mechanical timepiece category.

The difference between the two comes as a result of advancements in technology and the need to make these watches more appealing to users.

An automatic watch self-regulates power with little involvement from the owner. Thanks to the self-winding mainspring inside the automatic watch, you don't need a manual watch winder to get it working. 

This is unlike a regular mechanical watch where the user has to regularly wind the spring. In an automatic timepiece, a power reserve is created.

This mechanism may sound high-tech and as though it's a modern innovation, but it was invented in the 1700s by a man named Louis Perrelet. His creation allowed other watchmakers to develop it, and in 1923 the first automatic wristwatch was produced by John Harwood.

Since the automatic watch's first appearance over 100 years ago, it has been transformed and updated. Big watchmaking brands such as Rolex have adapted the original caliber, adding extra bulk to its rotor for better function.

More recent technological advancements have allowed this watch type to evolve with the times and suit the needs of present-day users.


The Inner Workings of An Automatic Watch Movement

One of the biggest tell-tale signs of mechanical watches is the number of moving parts that go inside the timepiece.

Quartz watch movements help keep the timepiece simpler and less complicated on the inside, but automatic wristwatches have also improved over all the usual parts that come with manual timepieces.

Here are the important parts of every automatic watch movement that allows them to do what they do:

  • The Rotor: A weighted rotor is where the process starts in these watch movements. When a watch wearer moves their wrist, these actions turn the rotor.
  • The Mainspring: The movement of the rotor winds the mainspring, which essentially self-winds itself. Once fully wound, gears send the energy from the mainspring to the balance wheel.
  • The Balance Wheel: The balance wheel is the spinning part that you can sometimes see through the back of an automatic watch. The balance wheel uses the stored energy to turn the hands on the clock at an accurate rate.

Since the automatic watch is self-winding, there is a power reserve within the watch which helps to keep it functioning even as the spring unwinds. Depending on the watch manufacturer, how much you paid for it, and the timepiece specifications, your automatic watch can remain powered for a few hours to a couple of days after last use.


How Long Do Automatic Watches Last For?

When we discussed quartz watches and how long they last for too, the first thing we said was this:

'It depends.'

The same thing applies here.

You can have two automatic watches that don't last for the same period. Here, we assume you want to know how long they can last between windings and for general long-term use.

So, here goes some things to keep in mind.


Power Reserve

Every modern automatic watch design should have a reserve that lasts between hours to days.

The exact reserve you get is dependent on the quality of the watch movements, the cost of the watch, and how premium the watchmaker is.

Thus, make sure you are paying good money for an automatic watch and that you are going for some of the best manufacturers in the business. Otherwise, you might get a watch that stops working the moment you rest your wrist for a few minutes at once.


Materials of Make

The design of your automatic watch also informs on how long it lasts.

At Nordgreen, for example, we pay attention to everything from the watch case material to the glass crystal and even the watch dial. All of these components come together to make a watch, so we don't neglect one to focus on the other.

That is why we can promise up to a two-year warranty on our watches, and they can last for decades with proper maintenance and usage too.

In short, go with brands that use components that won't break easily in their watches if you'll be getting an automatic watch at all.


Idle Times

A precision issue with automatic watches occurs when you leave them for so long that they stop working. Now, you would have to wind and set the watch again to start using it.

However, you are not only dealing with precision here but the longevity of the watch too.

You see, automatic watches have a series of moving parts inside the watch, so they usually come with special oil to grease these parts and the gears too. When you don't wear the watch for a long time, the oil can harden, preventing the watch from functioning normally.

Should that happen enough times, it could stop the watch mechanism from working well at all.


Poor Maintenance Habits

You cannot use an automatic watch the same way you do a quartz watch.

While you should never abuse any watch, a quartz timepiece can still forgive maintenance neglect for a while. Try that with an automatic watch, and you could be killing it.

From the rotor to the balance wheel, the automatic watch needs to be serviced and checked more frequently.

If you don't have the time to dedicate such a care routine to your timepiece mechanism, it might just be better to get a simple quartz watch and enjoy all the advanced features that modern ones bring with them too.


Do automatic watches stop if not worn?

The rotor in an automatic watch that sends useful energy to be stored only works when the watch is in motion. This motion is usually from the movement of the wearer's hand when the automatic timepiece is worn.

Left for too long, the rotor doesn't get any energy inputs. In the meantime, the wound mainspring loses all of its energy to keep the watch working till it has no power anymore.

Thus, an automatic watch will stop working if not worn for too long such that the watch exhausts its power reserve in the meantime. If the watch does not exhaust the energy stored between the time that it is taken off and worn again, it does not stop.

For those who have multiple watches, this can be an issue since they cannot keep wearing the watch just to keep it working.

An alternative is to get an automatic watch winder that simulates the movement of the hand when the watch is not worn. That keeps the rotor spinning and transfers energy into the mainspring till the watch is ready to be worn.

The above approach drives up the total cost of using and managing an automatic watch.

Elsewhere, the watch user can choose to manually wind the watch whenever they want to wear it again. This approach can lead to faster damage of the watch as if it is wound wrongly or left to sit for too long before being wound again, internal components of the watch may be affected.


Why are automatic watches bad?

Automatic watches are not inherently bad.

If not handled right, though, they could be a poor buying decision for you.

We have covered some of the reasons why these watches might not be good for you below.



Automatic movements require a series of complex components that should be put together by those who understand what they are doing. Otherwise, you'll get a poor self-winding watch that doesn't stand the test of time.

It is, thus, little wonder that these watches will cost a pretty penny.

If you are not willing to shell out good money on your watches, you should not go shopping for an automatic watch. Of course, you'll find the cheap ones, but they would be of poor value for the money spent.



There is a reason why pocket watches were bulky.

Fitting all those mechanisms into the watch's back means it needs some more space. Thus, manufacturers compensated for that by making the watch big.

The automatic movement improved on the winding side of things, but it didn't eliminate all that bulkiness. With that bulk comes weight, so you always know that you have something around your wrist.

Some users love the weight that comes with their automatic watches, while a majority of others prefer a simple, lightweight watch that doesn't interfere with their daily affairs.



With extra moving parts comes the need for more maintenance.

Inside the watch engine alone, there are parts such as the mainspring, balance wheel, gear train, and dial train, among others.

That tells you all you need to know about the maintenance needed on these watches.


Will an automatic watch run forever?

Automatic watches spawn from the history of manually-operated mechanical watches – the movement that used to power pocket watches.

When men started using wristwatches, too, the mechanical movement gained even wider spread acceptance. Now that technology has made it possible for the watch to work as a self-winding mechanism, this kind of movement is a little bit more appealing.

That said, do they last long at all?

There are well-made mechanical watches that have lasted for centuries now and have been passed down to other generations. Pocket watches are the most common of this type, but most of them have to be wound manually to this day.

Since the automatic watches are an improvement over the manual winding mechanical watches, it stands to reason that they will also last long.

To date, some people see these premium automatic watches as an investment that will stand the test of time. Especially when the watch is specially made and only sold in limited quantities, the wearer can enjoy it for a long time and sell it at a higher value later.

When not sold, it can be passed down in a family such that it becomes an heirloom and the darling of many collectors who would give a huge sum to have it.

Given the right level of care, maintenance and upkeep, automatic watches can be worn for many years and passed to others in pristine condition too.

October 21, 2020 by Christopher Day

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